Why automate cell cultures?
Whether a lab is involved in cutting edge cancer research, drug development, cell-based vaccine development or even synthetic-food production, it needs to aim for high productivity, efficiency, and reliability to remain competitive1.
However, mammalian cell lines, as any scientist who has worked with them knows, can be rather demanding. The repetitive passaging, monitoring for health and growth, and maintenance of appropriate culture conditions can be extremely tedious, often requiring skilled scientists to be in the lab during the evening or over the weekend.
Automated cell culture systems are gaining popularity because they have the potential to overcome the drawbacks of manual cell culture by improving reliability and scalability, and by enabling the redeployment of skilled staff2–4.
Even the most experienced and well-trained scientist can make mistakes5,6. During cell culture, this can result in abnormal growth patterns, uneven cell attachment, changes in growth rate, or contamination, resulting in experimental variability7,8,9. Automated cell culture systems are able to meet strict standardization requirements, reduce contamination rates, and minimise human error2.
If a lab can introduce automation at an early stage, while they are still managing small volumes of cell culture, they will be better able to scale up their processes when they are ready to do so10. Automated cell culture frameworks can be scaled up to deliver high throughput, high purity, and high yield cell growth11. They can overcome the knowledge transfer bottleneck caused by staff turnover12, perform screening on a large scale, and run cell line development projects simultaneously13.
For example, switching from a manual cell line development workflow to an automated process can mean a move from 96-well to 384-well plates, resulting in a 4-fold increase in clone density14.
Automated processing can replace hours of repetitive manual work with instrumentation4, meaning that skilled staff are free to perform other tasks, such as process improvements14, or research and development4.
What processes are suitable for automation
Automation can be applied to the vast majority of cell culture processes. The methods used to achieve this can vary, but the following represent some of the approaches that have been used: